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October 8, 2009 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Late-Year Sizzle 2009
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

The triumphs of del Potro and Clijsters at U.S. Open completed the year's four Slams. Still unsettled are the final standings among the top pros for 2009. The details will emerge from weekly tournaments this fall in Asia and Europe, followed by the year-ending championships for the men's tour in London and for the women's in Doha, Qatar.
The early leader in the standings for year 2009 was Rafael Nadal, who won Australian Open in January and Indian Wells in March. After a close loss to Juan Martin del Potro in Miami, where the tournament winner was Andy Murray, Nadal resumed his winning ways, capturing the clay events in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome.
Roger Federer's climb to surpass Rafa began in his final-round victory over Rafa in the new clay tournament in Madrid in May. Sir Roger then swept both Garros and Wimbledon, so that with Nadal on the sidelines with bad knees, Roger took over first place for the year to date. Federer's triumph in Cincinnati and his runner-up finish at U.S. Open then extended his lead.
Meanwhile a Big Six had emerged -- six players whose achievements in 2009 grouped them well ahead of all others. The six elites had together (1) won the year's four Slams, (2) captured both first and second places at all seven of the year's Masters-1,000 tournaments to date, and (3) filled all four semi-finalist positions at U.S. Open in September. Winning the U.S. Open lifted del Potro from sixth place to fourth within the group.
Here are the Big Six in the point standings for the period from January 1 to October 5, 2009. (The values have been unofficially tallied here, as ATP no longer publishes year-to-date singles standings.)
1. Federer, 9,840
2. Nadal, 8,065
3. Murray, 6,030
4. del Potro, 5,715
5. Djokovic, 5,550
6. Roddick, 4,310
There are many points for 2009 yet to be won. In progress currently (October 8) are simultaneous Tour-500 tournaments in Tokyo and Beijing, where the winners will gain 500 points. The Shanghai outdoors will follow next week, a Masters-1,000 tournament, worth 1,000 points to the winner. November will bring simultaneous Tour-500 events in Valencia and Basel followed by the Paris indoors, another Masters-1,000 event. The World Tour Finals in London, November 22-29, formerly called Masters Cup, will assemble eight qualifiers from the year-to-date standings. The winner will acquire a maximum of 1,500 points.
Federer's substantial margin ahead of Nadal in the standings makes it likely, though not certain, that Roger will hold first place through year's end. Roger missed out on the Asian swing, including Shanghai next week, deciding to rest, while Rafa's knee and abdominal-muscle problems of recent months bring uncertainties. Both Djokovic and Nadal won their first two matches in the current tournament in Beijing, while Roddick lost at Beijing and del Potro lost at Tokyo to players up from the qualifying rounds. Murray, with wrist injury, like Federer missed the Asian events.
A strong group outside the Big Six provide the contenders for the seventh and eighth places at London. Winning their first two matches this week, thereby reaching quarter-final berths at Beijing or Tokyo, were Davydenko, Verdasco, and Gonzalez, who are the foremost contenders for London. Not far behind are Soderling and Tsonga, who are both still in Beijing or Tokyo.
Dinara Safina and Serena Williams have been the dominant players in the 2009 women's race. Serena led in January after defeating Dinara in their final-round meeting in Australia. But Dinara then nearly swept the clay season, winning in Rome and Madrid and reaching the final at Garros, thereby capturing the top place in the year-to-date standings. Serena won Wimbledon in July, but Dinara's final-four finish there kept her comfortably ahead in the standings. Her lead over Serena diminished only slightly thereafter, as other stars claimed the main summer events, including Kim Clijsters in winning U.S. Open in September.
(That Dinara, with no Slam triumphs, remained ahead of Serena despite Serena's two Slams, suggests that the point allocations need revision, increasing rewards to winners of Slams and other tournaments. Presently a runner-up receives 60% as many points as an event's champion, so that two second-place finishes trumps winning a championship.)
The fall circuit began for the top women at the Pan-Pacific in Tokyo, starting September 28. Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters were absent, but all the other leading stars were in the 56-player main draw. Dinara Safina, who won the event last year, was top seeded. But events in Tokyo took a strange direction, as few favorites fulfilled expectations. Of the eight highest-seeded entrants, all of them members of the world's first ten, only two managed to win their first match. Eliminated were Safina, Dementieva, Kuznetsova, Zvonareva, Venus Williams, and Wozniacki. Moreover, the six players who knocked out these favorites were all beaten in the next round.
The eventual winner at Tokyo was Maria Sharapova, who had been unseeded (reflecting her lower-than-usual ranking caused by her long absence for shoulder rehabilitation). During her run to the final, Maria was carried to three sets by three of her opponents. But her serving delivery, which she had shortened in her earlier comeback appearances, was once again full, potent, and sufficiently free of double-faulting. Meanwhile her ground-stroking was, as always, aggressive in pace and direction. Throughout the week, including against Jelena Jankovic in the final round, the outcomes of Maria's matches were largely in her own hands, depending on her ability to sustain her forceful play without excessive errors. The fast courts and the indoor-like conditions when weather forced closing of the convertible roof, favored her big-game style.
The official year-to-date standings as of October 5, just after Tokyo, shown below, reveal a large, surely insurmountable gap dividing Safina and Serena from the others. Despite her failure in Tokyo, Safina still held first place. Sharapova was well outside the elite eight, with only faint chance of qualifying for Doha.
1. Safina, 7,652
2. S. Williams, 7,437
3. Wozniacki, 5,570
4. Dementieva, 5,365
5. Kuznetsova, 4,773
6. Azarenka, 4,371
7. V. Williams, 4,317
8. Jankovic, 3,660
Safina again lost early in the tournament now in progress in Beijing. (She then withdrew from the doubles, citing lower-back problems.) Serena Williams meanwhile defeated her first two opponents, so it was clear that, at minimum, Serena's gap behind Safina in the year-to-date race will be reduced as a result of the week's play. (It was already clear, however, that Serena would become #1 in the running-12-month rankings at week's end.) Also losing early at Beijing were Wozniacki, Venus Williams, and Jankovic, while Dementieva and Kuznetsova advanced to reach the tournament's final eight.
Caroline Wozniacki was not the only teenager excelling at U.S. Open who thereafter stumbled disappointingly. Melanie Oudin lost in the qualifying rounds at both Tokyo and Beijing, and Yanina Wickmayer lost in the first round at Beijing. Meanwhile, Maria Sharapova lost her second match in Beijing, so that her chances for Doha became almost nil. Veteran Kim Clijsters did not play at either Tokyo or Beijing and therefore slipping out of the running for a place at Doha.
The women's race is much closer to its conclusion than is the men's. After Beijing, only three weeks of tournaments lie ahead, including just one Premier tournament, in Moscow. The tour finals in Doha start October 27. Performance in recent months argues that Serena Williams will emerge as the year's #1, but numerically the crown remains within reach of a distraught Dinara Safina if she can counter Serena's momentum.
Four pairs have been preeminent in men's doubles this year, the group having captured all four Slams and also runner-up honors in three of them. Veterans dominate, as all but one player within these pairs has passed the age of 30. Strongly influencing this year in men's doubles has been a realignment of partnerships starting last year among individuals already in the high group.
Staying together were Bob and Mike Bryan who, having narrowly lost their accustomed #1 year-end ranking, began the new year 2009 by winning Australian Open 09. The twins defeated the rising pair Dlouhy-Paes in the semis and then Bhupathi-Knowles in a split-set final. It was the third Australian crown for the brothers, who turned 31 this spring.
Then in June Dlouhy-Paes, a pair formed last year, captured the French crown at Garros. Leander Paes, now 36, is a mercurial player whose quickness in forecourt can sometimes create dominance in matches. Lucas Dlouhy, 26, was born in Czech Republic. Now, in capturing their first Slam crown, Dlouhy-Paes defeated Nestor-Zimonjic -- the pair that had knocked the Bryans from their perch at the end of 2008.
As the only tournament employing the best-of-five-set format, Wimbledon remains the crowning event in men's doubles. Repeating as Wimbledon winners this year were Nestor-Zimonjic, who came together as regular partners in early 2008. Both men are listed at 6-3, and both were born in Belgrade, though Dan Nestor, now age 37, has always competed as a Canadian. Both bring superior serving and serve-returning abilities, quickness and power in all other areas. Nestor is a lefty who returns serve from the left court, so that both men's forehands are to the outside when returning, protecting against the difficult wide serve. Nenad Zimonjic, now 33, a Serbian player regularly seen in his nation's Davis Cup line-up, had previously been partner for the magic of Santoro. In their 2009 Wimbledon final-round victory, the Canadian-Serbian pair defeated the Bryans in four sets.
Dlouhy-Paes became the year's two-time Slam winners by capturing U.S. Open 09, defeating the Bryans in a split-set semi and then Bhupathi-Knowles in a split-set final. The latter pair, also formed in 2008 from previously successful partnerships, were runner-ups this year also at the Australian.
Here are the unofficial standings for 2009 to date, as of October 5. The results at London will probably determine the year's champion between Nestor-Zimonjic and the Bryans.
1. Nestor-Zimonjic, 9,010
2. Bryans, 8,745
3. Dlouhy-Paes, 5,740
4. Bhupathi-Knowles, 5,590
The powerful serving and serve-returning of Serena and Venus Williams, along with their superior athleticism, make them an almost unbeatable pair in women's doubles. The sisters have captured three of the four women's doubles Slams in 2009, failing only in a third-round loss at Garros. They played in only one other 2009 doubles event, however, winning at Stanford, so that their current ranking in the year-to-date tally is only #2, too far behind Cara Black and Liesel Huber for hopes of capturing the top place. Black-Huber have played 18 events compared with five by the sisters.
The 2009 Davis Cup champion will be either Spain or Czech Republic. The two nations will meet on December 4-6 in Spain, where the host team will be favored, especially if Nadal and Verdasco are on hand. Spain is the defending Cup champion, having beaten host-nation Argentina 3-1 a year ago behind Verdasco and Lopez.
In this year's semi-final round, September 18-20, the Spanish team, without Nadal, comfortably defeated Israel on Spanish clay. Erlich-Ram, re-united for the occasion, won the doubles for Israel, but Ferrero won two singles and Ferrer one to wrap up the Armada's victory, 3-1. Meanwhile Czech Republic swept the first three matches on red clay against host-nation Croatia. Stepanec beat Karlovic, and Berdych beat Cilic, both in five sets. (The fifth set of Stepanec vs. Karlovic reached 14-games-all.) With the Czechs then ahead by two matches, Stepanek-Berdych won the doubles in straights.
Also on the same weekend, eight nations won places in the 16-nation World Group for 2010. One of those advancing was Switzerland, when the Swiss team beat Italy on red clay in Genoa behind two singles wins by Federer and one by Wawrinka. Federer-Wawrinka, the Olympic champs last year, were not paired in doubles.
The Fed Cup will be decided November 7-8 when Italy faces U.S.A. on Italian red clay. Whether or not the Williams sisters participate will be critical, as Pennetta and Schiavone appear too strong for the Americans otherwise.
The game of tennis and the game of bridge seem to go together. The first is physically and emotionally exhilarating, the other is mentally stimulating but not physically demanding. Tennis players are often seen at the bridge table between times on the court. Tennis's greatest superstar to his time, Tilden, was an avid bridge player.
Back in the 1930's tennis borrowed from bridge the term Grand Slam, to define the supreme achievement in international tennis. The Grand Slam in tennis was to win the national championships of Australia, U.S., France, and Britain (Wimbledon) in a single calendar year. Meanwhile the four great tournaments came to be called the Slams, and each individually was called a Slam.
The American Don Budge won the first Grand Slam in tennis history, in 1938. Since then the Grand Slam was achieved by Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969 and by three women -- Maureen Connally in 1953, Margaret Smith Court in 1970, and Steffi Graf in 1988. Several other superstars have also won all four Slams over a full career, or the "career grand slam." Among them are active players Roger Federer, whose long-sought French crown came this year, and Serena Williams, who breezily called her four consecutive Slam crowns (over two calendar years) a "Serena Slam."
The classic usage persisted over several tennis generations, but somehow in the last twenty years, the original term Grand Slam gradually became used with a different meaning -- replacing the term Slam to mean each of the great tournaments individually. Wimbledon now, for example, has become a Grand Slam. Confusion has unnecessarily emerged in speaking and writing, as the listener or reader must judge from context whether the four great tournaments collectively are meant, or just one of them individually. The user is constrained to make clear by context or further language whether the classic or the fashionable meaning is intended.
Also weakened if not lost is the marvelously clean word Slam, to mean one of the four great tournaments. Instead, tennis has borrowed from golf the pallid term "major" to define each of the four former Slams. The word is weak, as we are unjustly conveying that important other events such as Miami, the Italian, the Olympics, Masters Cup, indeed Davis and Fed Cups are not major. Amazingly, I have occasionally heard television talkers use the word Slam for the original meaning of Grand Slam.
Let us return to the wonderfully descriptive and singularly useful classic tennis usage. In tennis, the expression Grand Slam means the winning of the four Slams in one calendar year. Period.
--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

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